I’ve been reading Erin Kelly since her debut The Burning Air and she’s pretty much unbeatable in her ability to grip the reader and immerse them in her world of domestic noir. This was read in a very enjoyable weekend with Alice Feeney’s Daisy Darker so I was knee deep in my favourite territory – arty, bohemian families, with big rambling houses, full of eccentricities and dark secrets. I was ready for skeletons to start tumbling out of closets and that was almost literally the case here. The Churcher’s and the Lally’s have a history that goes back decades and now they live in each other’s pockets, in two adjoining houses on Hampstead Heath, smelling of oil paint and weed. Back in the the 1970’s, when their friendships and marriages began, artist Frank used some old folk verses to create a picture book full of clues to hidden treasure. The story is macabre, as a young woman named Elinore is suspected of infidelity and murdered by her husband. He then scatters her bones in sites across the British Isles. The verses in the book, The Golden Bones, contain clues to the whereabouts of hidden treasure – a one off, tiny gold skeleton with a jewel set in it’s pelvis. When the book caught the public imagination, a group calling themselves The Bonehunters emerged and with the birth of the internet hunters and enthusiasts could solve clues together, pass on information and stoke rumours. Unfortunately, for some it became an obsession and twenty years later, Frank’s daughter – also named Eleanor- is attacked outside her school by a knife-wielding woman who is certain the final piece of treasure – the pelvis – resides within her actual body.
It’s no surprise that as the book reaches it’s fiftieth anniversary, speculation and concern from some parts of the family, has reached fever pitch. With the help of son Dom, the book has been re-issued in a Golden Anniversary edition, complete with locations for people to check in online. The families come together at the houses on the heath, to film for a television special about the book, including a secret unveiling that Frank’s been planning. As he gives a speech, under a tree on the heath, to everyone assembled and on camera, it’s clear he’s planned a publicity stunt. Could this be the final piece of treasure? However, even Frank is shocked when one of his grandchildren climbs the tree and instead of treasure pulls free a woman’s pelvis. The book follows the aftermath of this gruesome discovery, how it affects both families and starts a police investigation. Everyone is under suspicion. The author takes us back into the past, shows us events from different characters point of view, and turns the reader into a Bonehunter of sorts, trying to work out who this woman was and how her pelvis ended up buried in a tree on the heath.
We meet Eleanor again, but this time as a woman and she prefers it when people call her Nell. She weirdly had my dress sense, although I might draw the line at dungarees from now on having read the criticisms about them on middle-aged women! Anything to do with the book raises Nell’s blood pressure and it’s hardly surprising. It has influenced how she lives, as anonymously as possible on a narrow boat that she moves every so often on the London waterways. She claims this is to avoid mooring rates, but it also feels part of her PTSD, the need to keep moving and be hyper-vigilant. She has more than one reason to stay safe these days, because her step-daughter from a previous relationship is living with her. Unbeknown to social services her father left a long time ago. Nell hasn’t had much luck with friends or relationships and she blames the book for this too. She feels she can’t trust anyone since she fell in love with Richard when she was a teenager and he turned out to be an investigator, hunting the final bone on behalf of a rich Bonehunter. His protestations that he loved her anyway fell on deaf ears and she was left heartbroken. Now she’s more paranoid than ever and terrified that the police investigation will bring social services back into their lives.
I was fascinated with the dynamics of these two families living on top of each other in a way that was almost like a commune. The children would flit between houses, gravitating towards the parent who seemed most able to give that parental attention that they needed. Their friendship starts in the 1970’s as they shared ideas, drugs and a desire to create art. The families are so close that when Frank’s son Dom and Lal’s daughter Rose are found kissing it almost feels incestuous. Now there are shared grandchildren, linking them through blood. Where once there was equality, even if they were so poor there was nothing to share, now it seems like everyone functions for Frank. He is the successful artist and his whims should be accommodated. He felt like a law unto himself to me: working when he wants; neglecting his family; indulging his sexual appetites wherever he can. His mercurial temperament is excused because of his talent, but some family members already find him unbearable. Lal’s drinking seems to distract everyone from Frank’s bad behaviour and his decline has been very useful. It eliminates him as artistic competition too. We travel back to one particular night several times from different viewpoints. Wanting to break away from The Golden Bones Frank has created a collection of beautiful nude paintings. However, unable to let them show on their own merits, Frank has let it be known that every model in the show is one of his conquests. The tongues start to wag and by opening night it’s at fever pitch. I can’t work out whether he underestimates the family, or whether it’s a deliberate attempt to humiliate and dominate, but one of the models seems familiar. If Frank’s suggestion is true, he has betrayed everyone close to him. To make things worse he’s openly flirting with a waitress, in front of his wife and children. Luckily, Lal gets predictably drunk, drawing the attention and concern elsewhere.
In the present day both Lal and Frank are arrested, leaving the family scrabbling for the truth. Will it pull them all together or apart? The psychological interplay between family members is brilliantly done. Nell and Dom mean everything to each other, working as each other’s stability since both parents are absent when consumed by their work or drink and drugs. Dom and Rose’s relationship is borne out of the same impulse, desperately seeking stability and being steadfast in providing it for their own children. Nell has to decide whether this family is healthy for her and her daughter. The dynamic between Frank and his family becomes clearer as the novel goes on, with a wife seemingly dependent on medication to cope and Dom desperately trying to protect her. Frank is like a puppet master, in a strange echo of his role in the book, he’s choreographing events and controlling how they act, using distraction to hide what he doesn’t want them to see. He uses friend Lal as a whipping boy, in a terribly destructive dynamic. Frank can do what he wants as long as Lal is drinking and flying into rages, alienating his family. I felt there was a rivalry there and even a contempt for Lal, whose use is to be the comparison point – as long as Lal’s life and work is worse, then Frank is okay. Lal is, quite simply, a scapegoat. Even so, it is Nell’s character arc that I loved because she has to confront a lot of her past and start to build a better future as a family of two. Her strength is shown in the real quest of the book, not for golden bones, but for the truth. However messy, unexpected and inconvenient that might be.
Published 1st September 2022 by Hodder and Stoughton.
Meet The Author
Erin Kelly is perhaps best know for her novel He Said/She Said, about a young couple who witness a rape and, after the trial, begin to wonder if they believed the right person. Her first novel, The Poison Tree, was a Richard and Judy bestseller and a major ITV drama starring Myanna Buring, Ophelia Lovibond and Matthew Goode. She’s written four more original psychological thrillers – The Sick Rose, The Burning Air, The Ties That Bind.
She read scores of psychological thrillers before she heard the term: the books that inspired me to write my own included Endless Night by Agatha Christie, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and A Fatal Inversion by Barbara Vine. Her books are atmospheric thrillers, always about people trying to atone for, escape, or uncover a past crime. She says she’s more interested in what happens before the police arrive – if arrive they ever do – than how murder is solved.
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